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NEW SCHOOL CHOICES GROUPS SEEK CHARTERS TO OFFER EDUCATION ALTERNATIVES

Nearly 20 Buffalo-area groups this week will seek permission from the state to establish charter schools, steering public education in dramatically new directions.

The schools would be up and running by next September, if the state grants them charters. What makes the charter schools appealing to parents and proponents is that they would be free of many of the rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools. These schools also would offer widely expanded educational choice.

"We're pioneers in this whole process," said Cian Robinson, a coordinator of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership's effort to help groups organize charter schools. "We don't know what to expect. It's very, very exciting."

The proposals include:

An Information Technology School, which would be established by a group of business owners, where 30 percent of the daily schedule would be dedicated to technology instruction and all third-graders would be provided personal computers.

The South Buffalo Charter School, where organizers plan a "back-to-basics" elementary education with an emphasis on character development, a longer school day and year, and the likelihood that pupils would wear uniforms.

A proposed elementary facility, in Buffalo's Bailey-Kensington area, that would offer instruction in Spanish, music and art beginning in kindergarten, require parents to volunteer eight hours a month, and keep its doors open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

New York last year became the 38th state to allow publicly funded charter schools. In New York, they are run by boards of parent and community representatives rather than existing school boards, and -- if they have fewer than 250 students -- are not bound by a district's teacher and administrator contracts.

The first batch of charter schools approved earlier this year did not include any from the Buffalo area, so the local groups scrambling to meet a Thursday filing deadline are seeking to join the first generation of area charters.

Statewide, 92 charters still are available, and it is unclear how many groups will apply by Thursday's deadline. Decisions from the State Board of Regents and the State University of New York -- the licensing bodies -- are due by Jan. 1. Student enrollment procedures would be announced after that.

"I think we've got eight or nine very strong applications," Robinson said. "They're going to have a very good shot."

Charter schools will receive about two-thirds of the per-student operating aid provided to traditional public schools in their districts, said Patricia Pitts, executive director of the Partnership's Charter Schools Initiative. Many also plan fund-raisers and efforts to seek donations or grants.

A school for new immigrants and refugees would provide three or four daily periods of English language instruction and would probably be located on Buffalo's West Side.

"Right now, the children are given a very small amount of time in English-as-a-second-language classes," said Lucinda Kahler, an organizer. "The rest of the time they're sitting in regular classes, often not understanding what's going on."

The school would have about 10 students per class, work closely with local resettlement agencies, and seek to place students in traditional schools within two years. It would be called Assimilation Services Program for Immigrant and Refugee Empowerment, or ASPIRE.

Also in Buffalo, a group is seeking to establish a school for pregnant and parenting teens that would offer day care, case management and employment services, and seek to reverse a traditionally high drop-out rate for those students.

That application will not be filed until April 1, and the school -- like several others -- would not open until 2001, said Tanya Perrin-Johnson, chief executive officer of the YWCA of Western New York.

Other groups, some of which plan to file applications by Thursday, are working on:

A vocational school in the Tonawanda area that would provide concentrated instruction in traditional manufacturing trades.

An early elementary school in Niagara County.

A Buffalo elementary school that would stress individual learning styles and self-directed learning.

A Lackawanna elementary school with a global theme and instruction offered in multiple languages.

A facility organized by parents who now provide home schooling for their children.

The Information Technology School proposed by business owners -- including Paul Bandrowski, president of Reciprocal Inc., and Jack Boyczuk, president of Great Lakes Electronics Distributing Inc. -- would have 900 students and be located in the Southtowns or South Buffalo.

Pupils would learn to manage local area networks, program web sites and apply technology to their lessons in core academic subjects such as science and math.

The school would begin with grades kindergarten through eight, but would expand to a high school seeking to provide graduates the skills they need to find good jobs or pursue advanced technology programs in college.

"We want to create a program that meets our needs as information technology-type companies," Bandrowski said. "This is an opportunity not only to create a showcase school, but to make our community more competitive. This is about economic development."

The New York State Association of School Boards, which opposed the charter school legislation, says charters -- although open to all students in a district -- have the potential to divide enrollment along racial, religious and socioeconomic lines.

An inner-city charter school in Albany has an enrollment that is almost entirely minority, said Dave Ernst, a spokesman for the association.

"The question arises: Is this a good thing?" Ernst said. "Should we be designing schools that are likely to have that effect?"

Ernst also said traditional public schools will lose funding for every pupil who leaves for a charter school, but that the expenses of existing schools will probably not go down. For example, a school that loses three third-graders would lose aid for those pupils, but would probably not consolidate third-grade classes and reduce staffing.

About half the local charter school applicants are seeking to purchase or lease existing buildings, while others plan to construct new schools. In addition, about half the groups are working with for-profit management groups that would have contracts to administer the schools.

The South Buffalo Charter School would pay Beacon Education Management, a Massachusetts group, 10 percent of its government funding.

"We build a curriculum around what they want and manage the school on a day-to-day basis," said Bill Phillips, Beacon's regional development director. "If we don't meet our performance standards, we're gone."

The South Buffalo school would open with 200 to 250 pupils in kindergarten through fourth grade, and is exploring the possibility of renting space in a former Buffalo school that now houses community organizations.

Housing, employment, literacy and counseling services would be provided for pupils and their families, said Christopher Jacobs, an organizer.

"We think another high quality public school could go a long way toward strengthening South Buffalo and helping families stay in the city," he said.

CHARTER SCHOOLS AT A GLANCE What are they? They are publicly funded, but have more freedom than traditional public schools in setting operating hours, establishing salaries and determining educational approaches. When will they open here? The first charter schools n the Buffalo area are expected to open in September 2000. How does a student enroll? Enrollment is open. A lottery will be used i f there are too many applicants.

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